A May 23 Sports column incorrectly said that thoroughbred Smarty Jones's bloodlines do not include Triple Crown winner Secretariat. His lineage on his father's side does include Secretariat. (Published 5/28/04)
It was a breaking news flash, reported nationwide Thursday: "Smarty Gallops."
Whoa, hold your horses. He can run?
You notice every time Smarty Jones eats, sleeps or has an aromatherapy treatment, we have to be told? This is because Smarty could win the Triple Crown on June 5 at Belmont Park in New York and -- this is important -- make us money. Lots of money.
Which is what this horse racing nostalgia bent is about, really. Cash.
Yes, $marty Jone$ could earn more than any other horse in the history of horse racing -- more than Secretariat, Citation or Man O' War, all of whom needed better agents.
Right this second, nearly 1,300 Smarty items are up for sale on eBay. His owners, the heartwarming Chapman family, are signing a licensing deal with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to bring Smarty Jones merchandise to racetracks across the country, to department stores such as Macy's.
Michael Chapman, son of owners Roy and Patricia Chapman, said Smarty sales "could rapidly exceed hundreds of thousands." Philadelphia Park, home of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion, has already sold 10,000 Smarty caps, reports the Philadelphia Daily News.
Click on to www.HorseHats.com and, in addition to a Smarty hat, you can also purchase a Rock Hard Ten cap, the one with the X through the middle of the logo and the words "Size Does Matter" emblazoned below. Retail: $19.95.
Makes you want to rent "National Velvet" and break out the Kleenex with the kids.
Here we go again, another spiritual descendant of Seabiscuit, a tale to remind us all about the good news in the world during a very bad time. Tom Hammond, NBC's horse racing announcer, told us that last week after Smarty won the Preakness, conveniently packaging our emotions about horses better than Oprah could.
Mr. Jones has harmed no kin or lawn of mine, and raining on Smarty's party gives me no foolish pleasure. But this national love-in, this longing for the sport's past that arises every time a thoroughbred seeks to do what Affirmed last accomplished in 1978, is too much. Can we stop the platitudes about wondrous beasts blazing down the backstretch for a moment and just admit that much of our sentimental attachment to this animal is rooted in money?
It reminds me of what Chick Lang Jr. said about horse stalls the other day: "All of the manure is not in the barn area. A lot of people sell it."
Chick knows. He ran Pimlico Race Course for 27 years. His father, Chick Lang Sr., rode Reigh Count to a Kentucky Derby win in 1928. Chick was 12 on Nov. 1, 1938, that magical day Seabiscuit beat War Admiral at Pimlico. "I got to pet him," he remembered.
Chick loves Smarty, putting him in a class with the greatest he has ever seen. He also knows Smarty is a licensing and marketing juggernaut, able to bring in dollars like LeBron. He sees where this is going: straight to the bank.
Besides, Smarty is a copycat. You can't just clomp on good American top soil, break out a woeful-owner tale and expect the country to be gullible enough to think you can win the Triple Crown. Funny Cide tried that last year.
Smarty is getting cocky, too. His media time with photographers on Saturday was scheduled between 8:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m., with -- and this was actually in the press release -- "no backstretch availability whatsoever." It is a sad time in sports when one can get more time with Rasheed Wallace than a pony.
And yet, a horse is a horse, of course, unless he cannot impregnate a female horse.
On www.Horsehats.com, you can also click on Famous Sires (read: famous sperm donors). Ferdinand, a chestnut thoroughbred who won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and was named 1987's Horse of the Year after he nudged out Alysheba in the Breeders' Cup, was not among these.
When Ferdinand was not a productive stud -- meaning his semen was worthless -- his Japanese owner turned him over to a friend to have him disposed of. Ferdinand went from the winner's circle at Churchill Downs at age 3 to a Japanese slaughterhouse at 19.
Same thing happened to Exceller, who outran Affirmed and Seattle Slew to win the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup and become the only horse to defeat two Triple Crown winners. But Exceller was not much of a ladies' man, either. He was killed in 1997 and sold for horse meat in Sweden, where it is a delicacy.
You only hope the Chapmans used Smarty's hoofprint to sign a Viagra deal, too.
I actually like Smarty. I want him to win. I just don't like the hypocrisy that is horse racing, this sentimental attachment to these animals based on . . . what? For many, the sentiment Smarty brings is tied to an OTB window somewhere.
Take Bobby Frankel, a Hall of Fame trainer. Last week in USA Today, he bemoaned the grueling toll that the mile-and-a-quarter track at Churchill Downs takes on young thoroughbreds. But Frankel did not say, "The health and well-being of these magnificent animals is in jeopardy." Frankel's published quote: "You ruin $100 million worth of horses to try to win this race."
Imagine the poor, wounded bank accounts of those premier breeders.
And with apologies to the equine aficionado, enough with this colt-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-pasture story. So Smarty's bloodlines do not include Secretariat's. Compared to a horse like Klabin's Gold, Smarty and his posse are living large.
Klabin's Gold lives in Walkill, N.Y., on state prison grounds. In December 2002, the former champion was found 100 pounds underweight with three fractured legs in his stall at Suffolk Downs, a minor track in Boston. His hooves were so long that the horseshoes had imbedded themselves in the bottom of his feet. Why? He stopped making money.
Luckily, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the nation's largest and oldest thoroughbred-rescue operation, got him to Wallkill, where the prison has operated a work program for the past 18 years for inmates to care for those horses who no longer win, place or show. It beats being sold for $600 to a meat buyer.
Since thoroughbreds were first brought to the American colonies more than 300 years ago, the inherent connection between man and animal grows. But that bond usually lasts as long as the horse keeps winning and the cash keeps flowing.
"They'll save him from becoming dog food," Lang Jr. promised. "No one is ever going to eat Smarty."
Why?, Chick was asked.
"Because you couldn't afford it," he said. "We're talking filet mignon here."